Football Doesn’t Wait

Frank de Boer becomes latest victim of the cruel short-termism of modern football, writes

Image: Wikimedia

Bob Bradley lasted for 11 games at Swansea. Paul Sturrock oversaw 9 at Southampton. Les Reed’s reign at Charlton Athletic was terminated after just 7 games.

Those were the three shortest managerial tenures in Premier League history until Crystal Palace made (unwanted) history last Monday by sacking Frank de Boer after just 5 games in charge.

With no points and no goals scored in Palace’s opening four Premier League games, the club’s American owners have ejected the highly-decorated Dutchman in the infancy of his supposed revolution.

It’s cruel. It’s volatile. It’s the hire and fire culture of modern football.

Indeed, one has to go back 92 years to find a repeat of Palace’s abysmal start, but I don’t think that serves as a sufficient reason to be quick to the trigger.

It is ludicrous to judge someone after just 5 games, 450 minutes of football; especially in de Boer’s case. What he was trying to achieve takes 5 months not 5 games. Palace Chairman Steve Parish and his team must have known the style of football de Boer wanted to play. They must have bought into that. And so they should have given him time.

But they didn’t, and I think that is the fault of those higher up rather than of de Boer. The Dutchman was unfortunate collateral damage in an act that embarrasses the club and humiliates the manager. Perhaps Parish was too hopeful? Perhaps the club’s new American owners suddenly realised the costs of relegation?

I watched de Boer’s last game in charge against Burnley. Palace were very unlucky to lose that game. If Scott Dann hadn’t fluffed his lines, if Lee Chung-yong hadn’t gifted Burnley their winner, maybe de Boer would still have a job. There is very little a manager can do to legislate for individual errors or bad luck. Mistakes such as those are down to the individual player.

The parts of football that do come down to the manager, however, looked to be under the control of de Boer. What I saw against Burnley was not a manager that has lost control of his dressing room, but one in which each player was playing for their manager. Palace created scores of chances. The performance was promising. It would not be ridiculous to believe they could avoid relegation under de Boer. It’s a 38-game season after all.

Yet de Boer was gone the next morning. That is telling: the Palace executives must have decided to part ways with the 47-year-old before the Burnley game (and had probably held talks with prospective successors during the international break) which is even more baffling. That would mean their decision was based on 4 games.

When things turn south, sacking the manager is the most efficient policy. I understand that. But what I don’t understand is why that principle had to be put into practise so early on. It’s like watering a plant for four days and then taking it back to the shop when it (unsurprisingly) hasn’t grown. These things take patience. Trust. Time. Why were Palace so quick to press the emergency panic button?

The former Ajax manager wouldn’t have exited unless Palace had a replacement lined-up to ensure a smooth transition. Roy Hodgson was announced as the incoming man before the dust could settle on this moment of history. Therein lies some welcomed clarity amidst all the confusion.

The replacement of a European doctor of technical, elegant, exciting football for a seasoned Premier League veteran who keeps things simple and does what is necessary to win, however hard on the eye, shows that pragmatism trumps idealism in times of hardship.

In hiring de Boer, Palace showed a desire to bring more entertaining football to Selhurst Park through intricate possession-based play as opposed to the safety first, long-ball template. He was part of a long-term plan to revolutionise the philosophy of the club “over a period of time” in hope that it would take Palace to greater heights. That lasted 77 days.

Roy Hodgson is part of a short-term plan to secure Premier League football for next season. That is how quickly things can change when points are not being earnt and goals are not being scored. Football doesn’t wait.

That ultimately comes down to the fear of dropping down a league and losing the status and financial boost that being in the Premier League brings.

This fear draws clubs into a perpetual trap. They don’t want to stray too far from the nest in fear of losing the nest altogether. And so it becomes harder to break the mould and reach the upper echelons of football.

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